Why Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay Is the Future of Cruising

Want to see what cruising will look like in a decade? Look to a small island in the Bahamas that’s undergone a big change.

View of CocoCay

CocoCay — often referred to as Perfect Day at CocoCay — is an island destination in the Bahamas that’s operated by Royal Caribbean. The fact that a cruise line runs a private island exclusively for its guests is not big news. Every major cruise line from Royal Caribbean to Carnival to Norwegian to Disney has their own little piece of paradise in the area.

What’s so different about CocoCay is how it has been completely transformed.

For those who don’t pay attention to cruising day-in and day-out, for years the island was similar to many of its competitors. CocoCay featured white sand beaches and a chance to enjoy some of the most beautiful water on the planet.

The cruise line built some facilities, including a few things to do like beach volleyball, some small shops, simple dining options, and that was about it. While the spot was enjoyable, it could easily be described as sleepy.

That was until Royal Caribbean sunk $250 million into completely transforming the island. Those who visited CocoCay today would barely recognize it.

Yes, the white sand beaches and beautiful water are still big attractions, but now they are accompanied by private cabanas and daybeds — along with thousands of loungers with umbrellas.

And what used to be sandy, scrubby land has been completely redone with an enormous pool with swim-up bar. A complete waterpark featuring a 135-foot tall slide (the tallest in North America) and a wave pool anchor the attractions on the island. That’s not to mention a balloon that takes guests up 400 feet in the air… dining locations all over the island… and even over-the-water cabanas that you can rent.

Entrance to Thrill Waterpark

In short, the island has turned from a decent port on the schedule to a pre-eminent destination. According to the cruise line’s CEO Richard Fain, “to describe Perfect Day [at CocoCay] as a home run wouldn’t do it justice…”

We’ve personally visited the island both before and after the transformation. After cruising for years across major cruise lines, the one thought we were left with is that CocoCay represents how cruising will transform in the coming years.

A Big Change to the Cruise Market

Why are we so adamant that CocoCay is going to transform how cruise lines do business? The biggest reason is that the island represents what we think cruise passengers really want from a port of call.

Picture a vacation to the Caribbean or the Bahamas, and what do you see in your mind’s eye? If you’re like most people, you think of a gorgeous beach and water. Or maybe a great meal. Or maybe you think of having a drink by the pool while relaxing.

What you likely don’t think about is having to figure out how to get a taxi to a distant beach, navigating an unfamiliar country, being pressured by vendors, or being in a city that can be unsafe.

Unfortunately, these traits are found in many ports of call. Some ports are so undesirable for passengers that some choose to stay on the cruise ship during the stop.

That’s not CocoCay. It’s clean, bright, new, and safe. It offers something entertaining for everyone. And while you certainly can spend money on attractions on the island, you can enjoy the entire day without spending a dime.

CocoCay is also extremely convenient in that drink packages and the ship’s wi-fi also work in port. It also has amenities like water fountains, lockers, and public bathrooms and showers that you won’t find in a typical port. There is even a tram that runs around the island for those who don’t want to walk and beach wheelchairs for guests with mobility issues.

In short, Royal Caribbean has essentially built the perfect port-of-call.

For those that like to explore exotic foreign countries, it may not be ideal as it can feel like a theme park. But then again, it’s our opinion that these people aren’t typically the target market for cruises.

History Looks to Repeat Itself

It’s only a matter of time in our opinion until other cruise lines follow suit in completely renovating their island ports to keep up with Royal Caribbean. At this point, it’s simply a matter of waiting for history to repeat itself.

We’ve already seen cruise lines have an “arms race” of sorts when it comes to their cruise ships. Not long ago ships were much smaller — and had far fewer things to do — than today.

And while Royal Caribbean still leads with the largest ships, new ships like the Norwegian Encore and Carnival’s Mardi Gras are pushing those cruise lines toward bigger ships with more things to do (Norwegian even has go-kart tracks on its biggest ship while Carnival will have the first roller coaster at sea.) Where 3,000-4,000 passengers used to be the mark of a large ship, 5,000-6,000 people seems to be the new benchmark.

Royal Caribbean Terminal in Miami

We’re also seeing the same with cruise terminals. Royal Caribbean again led the way with it’s Terminal A in Miami. Where cruise lines used to be satisfied with relative “warehouses” that moved passengers and luggage from shore to ship, today’s terminals are architectural masterpieces. Both Carnival and Norwegian have new jaw-dropping terminals in the works at the Port of Miami.

In other words, we’ve seen this same story play out time and again.

The next logical step is for other cruise lines get in on the action of completely transforming their private islands into must-see destinations.

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